The American people were mis-sold the General Petraeus scandal

It wasn't about security. It was about sex.

When the CIA director and former chief of American operations in Afghanistan resigned after admitting an affair with his hagiographer, a serious disconnect could be seen in the US coverage between the reasons the media wanted us to believe they found this scandal fascinating – security issues, personal privacy issues, unprecedented access issues, the hint of espionage and the smell of treason – and the reasons the media actually found this scandal fascinating: Broadwell's looks, the age difference between the two, the narrative of a powerful man brought low by his libido, and the stoicism of the betrayed spouses.

At the height of the story the internet rang with national security implications and thrilling spy narratives, hacked emails and clandestine communications. “If girlfriend was trying to access Petraeus email & FBI investigating, there's possibility she could be charged w espionage. Honey trap?”, the Telegraph's former Washington bureau chief, Toby Harnden, tweeted after the story broke. But now that the dust has settled, America has to come to terms with a difficult fact: this wasn't about security. It was about sex.

Headlines promising lines of enquiry like CNN's “is Petraeus' pillow-talk a security threat?” have so far borne scant fruit because everyone already knows the answer, which is: yes, but really no greater than background levels. A public servant is either professionally trustworthy or not, and an affair rarely changes this – the possibility of blackmail notwithstanding. The greatest American security breaches in recent history have been ideological leaks, not honey-traps. Broadwell was writing a book about Petraeus, not serially seducing generals for the KGB.

Maybe we can fall back on the old question: if someone can't handle themselves honestly in private life, how can they be expected to comport themselves straightforwardly in public life? But public servants often have chequered sex lives, and there isn't a convincing correlation between sleeping around and inability to work. In the private sector few are fired just for having an affair, but politicians and people like Petraeus are held to different moral standards.

America hasn't always been this prudish. Kennedy had a famously adventurous sex life, and FDR maintained a number of mistresses. But now the onus is much more on the media to sell: this is the era of News as Entertainment.

The age of sex scandal in the US seemingly started with Gary Hart, a Colorado Senator running for President in 1988 who made the mistake of laying a challenge for the press. “Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me – go ahead.” The papers took his challenge and Hart was snapped within two days with a model called Donna Rice on a friend's boat, unfortunately named “Monkey Business”.

In Britain the tabloid press is unapologetic about printing saucy gossip for it's own sake, which means many politicians – Boris Johnson, for example – can wriggle free of being caught 'in flagrante' simply by saying “yes, so what?” Sex always sells, but a scandal doesn't necessarily kill a political career in Britain unless there hubris or hypocrisy are also involved.

But Clinton, who famously cheated on his wife in the Oval Office – a sin of sins in the holy of holies – was nearly impeached for it, a punishment previously reserved for Nixon for the Watergate cover-up: a genuine scandal of political misconduct. But despite a divorce rate of 50% or higher, today's American public, especially those parts dominated by a Christian value-set, demand personal perfection from politicians. The media industry, courting their audience share, goes along for the ride.

(An unpleasant side-note is that the blame has fallen much more on Paula Broadwell than on Petraeus. He has come out of this mess looking like someone with a forgiveable weakness for women that many seem to expect of powerful men. It is Broadwell who has been made the villain; a temptress who betrayed her family for personal gain; while his wife Holly Petraeus, in a breathtaking display of callousness, has been condemned in the more unsavoury corners of Twitter for being too old and too unattractive to hold on to her husband.

Even the LA Times, struggling to make sense of this issue, ran a schizophrenic column by Megan Baum entitled “The Frump Factor and Holly Petraeus” which bemoans the sexism of Holly Petraeus's treatment with one breath and describes her as “an unlikely partner for a staggeringly accomplished man” with the next.)

The underlying motive to sell more papers and chase higher ratings means that the profitable story isn't one in the public interest, but one that interests the public. This is so obvious in Britain that it goes without saying; but the national media in the US, struggling with vast audiences that encompass both rising religious prudishness and rising popular prurience, is less used to this problem.

Thus, in America, sex in and of itself has become an ever-bigger deal, but networks and newspapers must now sell sex as a security scandal because while sex always sells, they have to be more careful about being seen to sell it. That's why the Petraeus scandal was so mis-sold.

David Petraeus, pre-resignation. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.